New Brunswick provincial employees are no longer allowed to make territorial or title acknowledgements in reference to First Nations lands, Attorney General Ted Flemming said Thursday in a memo provoked by legal actions against the government involving Indigenous rights and land title.
Instead, employees must only use an “ancestral acknowledgement” approved by the provincial government’s protocol office, said the memo.
In recent years, title acknowledgements have become a regular practice by universities, municipalities and government officials across Canada at the beginning of public events and ceremonies.
In New Brunswick, they typically recognize the Wolastoqiyik, Mi’kmaq or Peskotomuhkati, depending on where the acknowledgement is being made, and they indicate an event is taking place on unceded territory.
“As you may be aware, the Government of New Brunswick (GNB) is currently involved in a number of legal actions which have been initiated by certain First Nations against the province, including a claim to ownership and title to over 60% of the Province,” said Flemming’s leaked memo, which was later verified by a provincial spokesperson.
“As a result of this litigation, legal counsel for GNB and the Office of the Attorney General has advised that GNB employees may not make or issue territorial or title acknowledgements.
“This includes the use of territorial acknowledgements at meetings and events, in documents, and in email signatures.”
Flemming wrote it may still be “desirable” at times to make an “ancestral acknowledgement,” which is provided at the bottom of the memo.
“Please note the absence of terms such as ‘unceded’ or ‘unsurrendered,'” Flemming wrote.
‘It’s so disrespectful’
Oromocto First Nation Chief Shelley Sabattis said land title acknowledgements are an important part of recognizing that New Brunswick sits on land that was never surrendered to Europeans when they arrived and settled. She thinks Flemming’s memo is a slap in the face to First Nations people.
“We were here since time immemorial,” Sabattis said. “We were always here, and to be pushed aside and to be taken over to follow a more dominant society or more dominant culture, it just seems … ridiculous. It’s like, it’s so disrespectful.”
Last year, Oromocto, along with five other Wolastoqey First Nations, filed a lawsuit with the province asserting title to their traditional lands along the St. John River, known to them as the Wolastoq.
The claim covers about half the province and is ostensibly the claim to ownership and title Flemming was referring to.
Sabattis said she’s already heard from provincial workers in her community who are considering what they should do in response.
“My suggestion is just to keep on doing it, keep on acknowledging the proper acknowledgement. It is unceded, for one, and it’s unsurrendered. That’s what’s unique about New Brunswick, or the Maritimes, even.”
A ‘questionable’ direction, says legal expert
A law professor says the order set out in the memo appears to be legally unnecessary and could potentially undermine the opportunity for meaningful reconciliation with First Nations in New Brunswick.
“First of all this, this is not an appropriate approach,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and a director of the university’s Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.
“There are Indigenous rights in New Brunswick. Indigenous people in New Brunswick are entitled to assert their rights in the courts, and they likely do that because there isn’t any other process.
“What a public servant says or doesn’t say by way of a greeting at a meeting is not going to be evidence that’s going to sway and determine that.”
Turpel-Lafond said the memo also seems heavy-handed, and questioned whether Flemming really has the authority to dictate what all provincial employees can and can’t say.
“For instance, Indigenous employees in the government of New Brunswick — are they supposed to stand in their own territory and deliver this kind of half-witted message to their own people?
“I mean, that smacks to me like something that could touch upon racial discrimination and be, you know, quite harmful and not particularly culturally safe for the Indigenous employees in the government of New Brunswick.”